Woman with Civil War (period) binoculars

This is the first tintype I’ve put on the blog.  Though darker than photos printed on paper, tintypes were inexpensive to produce and more durable than paper, which made them quite popular in the 1860s and 1870s.  Soldiers carried them during the American Civil War.  They could be produced easily in a mobile studio, so the format remained in use by itinerant photographers until the early 20th century.

Binoculars rarely appear in photographs in the 19th century, and I’ve never seen a woman holding them in another photograph.  Was she an ornithologist?  A Civil War spy?  It’s fun to imagine the possibilities.

There’s another intriguing thing about this portrait.  It could be an illusion created by damage to the surface of the metal, but our heroine appears to be standing on one leg and holding the rocking chair for stability.  It’s difficult to determine the exact orientation of the image, which makes it hard to tell if she’s standing very straight or leaning toward the chair.  I assume she’s standing very straight, but is she standing on one foot?

Woman with binoculars 2b

Woman with binoculars 3b


Here are two scans to illustrate the question of orientation.  The first shows the full tintype.  The second shows the sheet rotated clockwise so that she appears to stand very straight.  The latter is the orientation used for all the images above.



7 thoughts on “Woman with Civil War (period) binoculars

Add yours

  1. It does look strange but I think, as you suspect, that it’s the damage to the photo that is causing her feet to appear ‘missing’. If you take a virtual plumb-line down from the centre top of her head, through the middle of her chest, through abdomen (she’s slightly angled, so her right hips are facing away from us, and her left hips are further forward so allow for that) right down between where her legs would be at that slight angle, you’ll find her feet – or at least the one she’s got most weight on, right at the bottom of the plumb-line. They or it are almost (but not completely) hidden in shadow and are behind a pale curved bit of damage to the photo (looks like a pale crescent).

    Here are some of the things I look for in a photo to define what I’m looking at: direction of light and shadow, also – if it can be perceived – angle of reflected light and shadow. You’ll find some of those clues in the light and shadow on the chair and its rocker-rungs. You’ll see it in the strongly shadowed aspects of her body such as where her hands meet what they are resting upon. You’ll also see them in her dress fabric. To identify what you’re looking at in fabric, first you need to decide what sort of fabric it is. In this case, going on date and appearance of the creases, I’d say it’s linen or heavy cotton – both are pretty matte in appearance and so don’t reflect light as much as, say, silk or satin would. You can tell from the creases high up in the skirt part, that she’s been sitting for long periods (possibly not in this chair, I don’t think it’s wide enough for long periods of sitting, also the front parts of the rockers seem to be missing, so maybe a prop, or for a younger person – or an ‘occasional’ chair). So, anyway, if you look at the faces (angles of the surfaces) on the dress, you’ll perceive the positions and angles of her legs beneath it.

    I’m wondering if what looks like a pointed foot at the far right beneath her skirt is actually something behind her, not one of her feet. The dark horizontal beneath the skirt may be her petticoat. Or not.

    She’s not leaning on the chair or it would be tipping more and there would be tension in her right arm and in her right shoulder and a slight bend in her body on that side.

    But there certainly is a lot of damage to the photo, and a lot is not only obscured but ‘added to’ by the damage which seems to make things that aren’t there, look as though they are.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Lots of great observations, Val, and you’re absolutely right that the lack of tension in her right arm indicates she’s not putting much weight on the chair. In order to have her stand straight upright, I had to rotate the tintype clockwise quite far, which made the ground look a little sloped (probably a trick of the eye), so I went with a compromise where she looks like she’s leaning toward the chair a little bit. And yes, her right shoe may well be obscured by the surface damage to the image. That makes the most sense.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Val’s comments are so wonderful and thoughtful that it seems flippant of me to say this, but I actually love the way the damage to the tintype makes it look as if she is levitating! Maybe even just holding on ever so slightly to that rocking chair to keep from floating off.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for delving into the archives, Liz. It’s fun for me to see earlier posts that I haven’t looked at in a while. This lady is a woman of action. She’d be outside most of the time, but she’d have a blog to record her adventures!

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: